When jazz drumming great Louie Bellson died on Feb. 14, he left behind an enormous legacy of great music and innovation.
Writer-script analyst Ryan Eglash is one of Bellson’s biggest admirers. Eglash, the former Las Vegan and the son of the late bandleader Jack Eglash, attended Bellson’s memorial service in Los Angeles last week and sent me some of his observations.
Jack Eglash headed the Jack Eglash Orchestra at the Sahara Hotel for over 30 years along with being the head of entertainment for all of the Del Webb casinos including the Sahara in Vegas. He was responsible for employing such legendary entertainers as: Johnny Carson — who he had to convince to bring back to Vegas, Jerry Lewis, Bill Cosby, Frank Sinatra Jr., Joey Heatherton; after playing with Jack Benny, Sammy Davis Jr. — two close friends, and discovering people such as Mary Welch and really, Jay Leno who hadn’t quite obtained the recognition at that time.
When Jack Eglash was working with Pearl Bailey, Louie Bellson was consistently concerned about Pearl because she was jealous over Louie. She loved Louie so much but generally Pearl would be concerned about women finding Louie irresistible due to the fact that he was such a kind and friendly person. He was always very compassionate so many people including dancers or showgirls would confide in him at times. Pearl wasn’t unfair but, Louie was always concerned that Pearl would be nervous about the women Louie might interact with.
On more than one occasion, Louie would tell Jack Eglash that he was worried that Pearl was going to get upset about speaking to some random women that would approach him. Louie was not only known for being exceptionally handsome but also for his caring and kind wisdom he would impart to those that needed a compassionate shoulder.
When my father told Louie it was my 13th Birthday coming up, Louis contacted Slingerland and Zildjian and sent me a Rosewood Slingerland Three-Piece Kit. I still have it and am in gratitude as not only was he an inspiration but I learned to become a pretty descent trio drummer. And it is important to note that most drum sets today aren’t made with special woods like Rosewood, which do effect the pitch and timbre of the set. The metallurgy that forged those Zildjian cymbals vibrate a sound difficult to recreate unless you go custom. Just ask any resident Jazz drummer such as: Santo Savino or John Nashan. So it is valuable on two levels: the gift of music Louie gave me and the tonal quality of the set makes it an almost irreplaceable antique.
I last saw him at UCLA where he played a Tribute at Royce Hall. I had wanted to share that with the woman I was madly in love with at the time and recall holding back my tears as she was so sick of hearing about the loss of my father. I still get choked up every time I hear Ella, Oscar, Sinatra or Diana Krall.
What people may not know is that aside from the Double-Bass Drum Set and the Jingle-Sticks with his name Trademarked on them, that I still have, Louie had a reputation as one of the kindest men in show business. That is a very short list but, mentioned with another famous person, Jack Benny — who everyone encountered, absolutely adored.
Bel Air Presbyterian is the ‘Church of the Rich & Powerful’. It is a massive structure, sitting high on the hill, cliffside, with incredible panoramic views. You actually feel closer to God up there. It had been a long time since I was at that church as the last time Ron & Nancy Reagan were there with Secret Service foot soldiers all carrying uzis. So I got a little lost trying to find the actual section. I had hoped to hear some more guest speakers, but perhaps coming in 12 minutes later than expected, I might have missed one other.
The most incredibly ornate snare drum — possibly made with pieces of solid gold — a museum piece, sat right in front of the podium where the President of Remo Drums got up to introduce a really interesting biographical documentary as the lights dimmed about Luigi Paulino Alfredo Francesco Antonio Balassoni. People listened about Louie’s life as he was interviewed throughout the giant screened presentation. The problem was, what can you tell to a group of people, about a guy whose career spans 75 years unless you’ve asked them to bring along sleeping bags for a church slumber.
Yes, he was married to Pearl Bailey and she was a little insecure, but name one comedienne or comedian that isn’t totally neurotic? Yes, he was on par and mentioned in the company of two other legendary drummers, Gene Krupa — made famous by “Sing, Sing, Sing” and Buddy Rich — made famous by his incredible temper and great musicianship. However, it was just one singular characteristic about Luigi Paulino Alfredo Francesco Antonio Balassoni, whose name change made him sound more Jewish than Italian. It was his kind hearted nature. “He was a compassionate giving, authentic Christian” said one of the elder people in line with me who refused to say her name. And of course, I recognize him to be a giving person as well. ‘Who picks up the phone and calls a drum manufacturer or Bob Zildjian just to give a kid a Birthday present? That kit wasn’t cheap. He spared no expense.’
His wife Francine was there to welcome so many that cared so dearly for Louie and mostly those who just appreciated what a gifted talent he shared. Many musicians from all over Los Angeles waited in line just to give Francine a hug, including myself. There were many drummers that he inspired along the way, such as: Carmine Appice, Terry Bozio and several other contemporary’s; also considerably talented, who have gone on to become famous.
Given that Louie has been around for so many years, I expected to see some of the many veterans of show business but I think the time of the day made it difficult or possibly, they may not have even been contacted for this as it is the first of three memorials to be held in Louie’s honor.
However I do know what defines Louie even further in character. In a time where racism and segregation were beyond obstacles to obtaining bookings at venues all over the U.S., from the 50’s into the 60’s, Louie didn’t march to the beat of that drum. He didn’t believe in “people of color” or that any person was defined by the color of their skin. My father told me that he had confided that he experienced many “hey, Luigi, you just fresh off the boat” with that name. So that is perhaps why the name change and his preference for African American women as he was with Pearl Bailey until he was widowed then Francine, also African American and his Manager.
In fact, many people don’t recall that back in 1962, Jack Eglash put together the one and only, First Annual Las Vegas Jazz Festival and Louie Bellson was one of the featured performers. This event attracted some of the world’s finest Jazz musicians and Musicians Union, Local 369, still to this day, hasn’t released the recordings for archives or distribution. As Jack Eglash recalled from another interview about this, “…I quickly found out what happens when the city doesn’t get behind an idea” as he was referring to the casino owner’s fears that by promoting African American performers, it may attract more African American patrons. The casino’s were concerned that it would injure tourism if the city became known for Jazz because of its longstanding association with African American communities. This is why it remains, the one and only, “First Annual Las Vegas Jazz Festival”. My father was always trying to do something to shift things in a more positive direction. He used to be really close to Sammy Davis Jr., in the early years, when as many people may not know, Sammy didn’t drink even; and neither did my father. So that’s what bonded them in friendship, ironically. The fact that neither one of them were too indulgent in any vices of the time. And at that time, it is important to note that there were a lot of Jazz players either smoking a lot of grass or hooked on heroin. This might have been another reason that the First Annual Las Vegas Jazz Festival was a problem too. So many 9 to 5’ers associated Jazz musicians with drug addicts. So there were a lot of stereotypes to overcome.
It was a very sad day for me because with each passing of these iconic, legendary figures from live performance and/or the Vegas showrooms and beyond, I often stop to think about what extraordinary men they were and what an extraordinary life I’ve had to have known most of them. There was never any shortage of talent that played Las Vegas as it always was and will be considered, at least historically as the entertainment capital of the world.
For great videos of Bellson’s solos, go to drummerworld.com.